5 Common Mistakes Editors Make

by Julie Schwietert Mar 30, 2011
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A FEW WEEKS back, I was reading the latest issue of Oxford American, which excerpted this badass letter writer Eudora Welty sent to the editors of The New Yorker.

Welty wanted a job at The New Yorker and she didn’t seem the least bit reluctant to pull out all the stops to get the editors’ attention.

There aren’t a whole lot of writers–then or now–who could pull off that type of letter, much less use it to develop a long and satisfying personal and professional relationship with an editor.

If you’re as much of a self-possessed badass as Welty, then you won’t need these tips. But if you’re confused by some of the dynamics of the writer-editor relationship (especially those dynamics characterized by the editor dropping the ball), then this one’s for you.

1. They don’t respond to your pitch or query.

How to respond

Don’t take an editor’s lack of response personally, and don’t take it as an indication that your idea has been rejected. Email gets stuck in spam folders. Messages read quickly don’t get revisited and fall to the bottom of the inbox. A busy editor is vaguely–or even very– interested in your query, but gets distracted by events and pitches that are more timely.

Follow up with a polite email asking the editor if he/she had a chance to read your query. Include the date you sent the original message and paste in the query again so the editor doesn’t have to look for it. Don’t do any of this, though, until you’ve given the editor sufficient time to reply to your original message. Most publications specify typical response times in their contributor guidelines; when they don’t, anywhere from four to eight weeks is a standard time frame.

2. They make decisions based on emotions or without sufficient facts.

How to respond

Accept that editors make decisions based on a variety of subjective factors, many of which have nothing at all to do with you. Rather than fight this fact, the best way to handle this situation is usually to just move on. If an editorial relationship is contentious from the beginning, it’s not likely to improve.

3. They change words in your story- or even reshape it entirely.

How to respond

Try to react to this situation with as little ego investment as possible. These types of decisions aren’t intended to cramp your style–otherwise the editor wouldn’t have worked with you in the first place. Understand that editorial decisions reflect a complex algebra of factors, including the editor’s understanding of the publication’s goals, audience, and even finances; many of these variables won’t be clear to you at all. If something really rubs you the wrong way, ask the editor to explain the choice that was made. And if a detail that has been changed results in a factual distortion, then bring that to the editor’s attention before publication if possible.

4. They assign a story and set a deadline, then leave your draft in limbo.

How to respond

One of the things you can do to prevent this from happening is to establish in your contract or in your early email exchanges what, exactly, you can expect once you file your article. Is there an anticipated date of publication? What will the editorial review and revision process likely consist of?

Still, it’s not uncommon for drafts to occupy placeholder space on an editor’s to-do list for weeks.

As I write this, I have articles in editorial limbo at The Los Angeles Times, Scientific American, and Money. I’ve already invested double digit hours of research and writing on each of these articles and have sources who are anxious to see their names in print. I generally take my cues from the editor. When I send in my drafts, I mention that I’m looking forward to feedback and hope to hear from the editor soon. A reply will often include a time frame when the editor expects to be in touch with feedback. That time frame is rarely honored– not for lack of good intentions, but because of time constraints or other editorial priorities that have emerged (Japan earthquake, for example). In any event, when I don’t hear from an editor within two weeks, I send a follow up email to ask if they’ve had a chance to review the draft and whether they have feedback and/or revision requests.

5. They don’t close the circle.

How to respond

By “closing the circle,” I mean this: They don’t let you know when the article is published. They don’t give you invoice paperwork or directions for submitting your bill. Or they do both of these things and then let the invoice sit on their desks for weeks. Or they move offices and your invoice gets lost in a moving box. (Hey, these aren’t fictional examples I pulled out of the air). Again, the more legwork you do upfront, the less you’ll have to do afterwards. But don’t be embarrassed by or reluctant to ask an editor to check on the status of a payment or any other post-publication logistics. If they don’t close the circle, don’t be afraid to help them do it.

*Learn more about the life and business of professional writing in MatadorU’s travel writing program.

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